By Inder Singh
Dalip Singh Saund was the first among Asian Americans and also
the first Indian American to be elected to the US Congress. Thus
far, he is the only Indian American who has been elected to this
honorable position. He was first elected in 1958 from 29th congressional
district comprising of Riverside and Imperial Counties of California
and was re-elected twice. While contesting election in 1964 for
his fourth term in the U.S. Congress, he suffered a stroke and
became incapacitated. He did not win his fourth term. However,
he did set a precedent for many Asians to follow in the U.S. Congress.
He remains a beacon of hope and an example for many Indian Americans
to succeed him.
Dalip Singh Saund was born on
September 20, 1899 in village Chhajalwadi, Amritsar, Punjab. He
went to a boarding school in Amritsar and Prince Wales College
in Jammu. He graduated with B.A degree in Mathematics from Punjab
University in 1919. In USA, he enrolled in UC Berkley in 1920
to study food preservation, in the Department of Agriculture.
Later, he switched to Mathematics Department and received MA in
1922 and Ph.D. in 1924.
As a student in India, Dalip S.
Saund was impressed with Gandhiji’s leadership of India’s independence
movement. He became his ardent and active follower. At the same
time, he became profound admirer of the then American president,
Woodrow Wilson whose speeches he read over and over again. His
inspiring ideas and ideals to “make the world safe for democracy”
and provide “self-determination for all people” appealed to him
enormously. It was through Wilson that he became familiar with
President Abraham Lincoln. He read Lincoln’s life story and studied
his writings that made an everlasting impression on his young
mind. In the preface to his autobiography, Congressman From India,
he wrote, “My guideposts were two of the most beloved men in history,
Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi”. Since Lincoln had influenced
him so much, he came to USA for further studies in spite of opposition
from his family.
By the time Dalip Singh Saund
finished his education, he had decided to make America his home.
He however was aware of the considerable prejudice against the
people of Asia and knew that few opportunities existed for him
or for people of India, at that time. Most Indians in California
could make a living as farmers. In spite of being highly educated,
he decided to move to Southern California in the summer of 1925,
in search of a farming job, the only conceivable opportunity.
D.S. Saund started his first job
as a foreman of a cotton-picking gang at a ranch belonging to
some Indian friends, a job that hardly required any schooling
much less a college degree. His job required him to weigh sacks
of cotton that the pickers had picked by hand and at the end of
the week made up the payroll. In between weighing, he had spare
time, which he utilized for reading books borrowed from the library.
Many times, he would continue his reading by the “dim light of
a kerosene lamp”.
From his first job, he had saved
some money and borrowed more from friends and ventured into the
growing of lettuce in partnership. The entire crop was a complete,
total loss and he acquired a debt that took him some time to repay.
Three years latter, in 1930, he again grew lettuce. This time,
he was fortunate and was able to clear up the rest of his debt.
During his farming years, he had many ups and downs and went through
the depression era of 1930s. But he refused to file bankruptcy
proceedings, like some other farmers did, when he suffered losses
due to harvest or market failures. For him, declaring bankruptcy
was a matter of great shame and against the very principles that
he had learnt from his parents.
Saund, when at Berkley, had joined
Hindustan Association of America, which had chapters throughout
the United States in different university centers. Two years later,
he became the national president of the association, which gave
him many opportunities to make speeches on India and meet with
other groups as a representative of the Indian students at the
university. He was an ardent nationalist and never passed up an
opportunity to expound on India’s rights to self-government. He
took part in several debates and spoke before many groups and
organizations. After he moved to the Imperial Valley, he continued
to take advantage of every opportunity to speak, debate and present
India’s side, a side of democracy and a side for humanity.
One evening, Saund was invited
to speak at the Unitarian Church in Hollywood, where he met a
young man, Emil J. Kosa who invited him to visit his home as his
parents were interested in India. During the course of conversation
with Mrs. Kosa, Emil’s mother, Saund found out that he was a co-passenger
traveling from Europe to New York, on the same ship with Mrs.
Kosa and her daughter, Marian. Saund became a friend of the family
and soon became a frequent visitor. He fell in love with Marian,
a nineteen years old UCLA student but was not sure if he could
marry her. He was a foreigner in a country where the laws prevented
him to become a citizen or own a home, without a secure job and
no clear future. Still, he did not give up and in 1928, married
Marian Kosa, an immigrant born of Czech parents. They had three
children, a son and two daughters.
Since Dalip S. Saund had become
well known as a speaker, the Sikh Temple in Stockton asked him
to write a rebuttal to Katherine Mayo’s book, Mother India, which
was a sensational book and had become a best seller. However,
Indians in California resented the book’s unjust and false interpretation
of Indian culture. Gandhiji called it a “drain inspector’s report”.
In the preface of his book, “ My Mother India”, published in 1930,
Saund wrote that “it was only fitting that The Pacific Coast Khalsa
Diwan Society (Sikh Temple in Stockton), in its role as the interpreter
of Hindu culture and civilization to America, should undertake
Since his student days in India,
Saund had been taking a keen interest in the political situation.
After he came to USA and moved to the Imperial valley, he continued
taking active role in socio-political activities. Although he
was not a citizen in 1932 and did not have the right to vote,
he was always present at official meetings of County Democratic
Party Central Committee. He liked the aggressive programs of fighting
the depression of President Franklin Roosevelt and never missed
the opportunity to defend the administration. But he was very
uncomfortable not being able to become a citizen of the United
States. It was time to invest in a country that he and his family
Saund consulted with the board
of directors of the Hindustan Association of America in Imperial
County and they agreed to form India Association of America in
1942, of which he was elected its first president. The task to
get citizenship rights was not an easy one particularly when the
Supreme Court of the United States, in 1923, had declared that
natives of India were not eligible to U.S. citizenship. In rejecting
an appeal of Bhagat Singh Thind (to whom, Saund dedicated his
book, My Mother India) about revocation of his U.S. citizenship,
the judge held that while persons from India were Caucasians,
they were not “white persons”, and therefore were “aliens ineligible
to citizenship”. Thus Legal solution was ruled out as a possibility.
An amendment of the Immigration laws with a special bill to be
passed in the Congress of the United States appeared an alternative
The Indian farmers could buy or
lease land only in the name of their American friends who some
times exploited them and even deprived them of their harvest.
Grant of citizenship rights would nullify the effect of California
Alien Land Law, which prohibited Indians to own or lease land
and property. D.S. Saund had been leasing property in his wife’s
name as she was an American citizen. However, some landowners
didn’t like leasing land to an Asiatic’s wife for fear of violating
the Alien Land Act. There were about 2,000 or possibly 2,500 Indians,
who could benefit by becoming citizens of USA. But they were very
skeptical that a major bill aimed at upsetting a historic decision
of the U.S Supreme Court could be passed by the Congress. It was
not that they did not want citizenship rights, but they had suffered
so many hardships and had been knocked about so much that it was
very difficult for them to believe that there was a chance of
It was a major undertaking to
convince the elected representatives of American people in Congress
on one hand and on the other to mobilize the Indian community.
D.S. Saund, with the help of some dedicated Indians, made several
trips to all parts of California, raised funds, mailed out thousands
of circular letters, mostly in Punjabi, and furnished financial
assistance to Indian groups in New York to lobby at the Capital
Hill. The mobilization took some effort but soon it gained momentum
and Indians in the USA were ready for all-out effort to gain citizenship
rights. They were able to convince Congresswoman Clare Booth Luce
from Connecticut and Congressman Emanuel Cellar from New York
who jointly introduced a bill in Congress. However, selling this
concept to the members of Congress was an uphill task, more so,
as its passage could open the door for other Asians who were similarly
deprived of citizenship rights. Indians continued running into
roadblocks in finding a powerful force to push it through. Luckily,
in 1946, President Truman took special interest in its passage.
After four years of waiting, Luce-Cellar bill was finally passed
by both houses of Congress and signed by President Truman on July
3, 1946. It was a great triumph and truly 3rd of July was the
independence day for those Indians in United States.
Dalip Singh became naturalized
citizen on December 16, 1949 and was ready to take more active
part in the political process of his adopted homeland. The primary
election was a few months away, in June 1950. A close friend,
Mr. Glen Killingsworth was judge in Westmorland, with whom D.S.
Saund had worked unofficially for many years in Democratic Party
affairs, encouraged him to run for a seat on the Imperial County
Democratic Central Committee. Saund’s first political victory
was without any opposition.
A few weeks after the election,
Judge Killingsworth suddenly died due to heart attack. It was
a great personal loss for Saund, for he had watched him closely
in his work as judge for many years and had admired the office
and the way his friend had filled it. Saund decided to become
a candidate for that office in the general election in November,
1950. He personally knew nearly all the voters in the judicial
district. So he started a vigorous campaign by ringing doorbells,
meeting people and asking for their support.
Dalip S. Saund was elected Judge
solely due to his exemplary grassroots campaign. No other foreigner
had by then been elected to any high office in Imperial County.
But the judgeship was denied to him as he had not been a citizen
for one full year by Election Day. Saund‘s friends started circulating
a petition addressed to the County
Board of Supervisors who were to appoint a judge. More than twice
the number of voters than had originally voted for Saund, signed
the petition. Most of the mayors of cities in Imperial county,
the presidents and leaders of different civic and professional
organizations, including the chairmen of both the Democratic and
Republican county central committees had signed a separate petition.
The daily newspapers in the county urged the Supervisors through
their editorials for appointment of Saund as a judge. But he lost
his first political battle through that minor technicality.
Saund was disappointed but by
no means discouraged. He wrote in his autobiography, “I harbored
no bitterness against my opponents. Throughout 1951 and 1952,
I continued my activities in support of Community Chest drives,
the Boy Scouts, and particularly the March of Dimes for which
I was the chairman for two years.” All these community activities
kept him in very close contact with the people of his district.
When he ran for the position of judge in 1952, he ran against
an incumbent who was appointed by the County Board of Supervisors,
was an established businessman and a member of the church board.
The campaign also had taken a racial overtone; some people would
not go for the “Hindu for judge”. But most of the people had felt
that injustice was done to Saund last time and now was the opportunity
to correct it. Saund won the election and served as judge for
four years until his election to the Congress of the United States
In 1954, Judge Saund was elected
chairman of the Imperial County Democratic Central Committee and
became a member of the Democratic Executive Committee of the state
of California. In the same year, Mr. Bruce Shangle of Riverside
County became the Democratic nominee from the 29th congressional
district. He knew that he had to campaign hard in Riverside county
to win as 80% of the voters resided in that county. So, it fell
on Judge Saund to manage the campaign of Mr. Shangle in Imperial
County and speak on his behalf to various service clubs and Candidates’
forums. Mr. Shangle did not win but it gave Judge Saund a very
valuable experience into the workings of a congressional office
and the duties a congressman has to perform.
Judge Saund by now had become
quite well known in Imperial county. In October, 1955, he decided
to be a candidate from the 29th Congressional district. He was
confident of loyal support from the County Democratic party but
was not sure of similar support from Riverside county. Mr. Bruce
Shingle who ran unsuccessfully in the last election assured his
Judge Saund’s Democratic opponent
was a well-known Riverside County attorney, active in California
politics and at one time had been a candidate for attorney general
of the state of California. He tried to get Judge Saund disqualified
on the technical grounds that he had not been a citizen for seven
years before he could become a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
First the Appellate Court and then the Supreme Court of California
dismissed the petition on the grounds that the sole judge of the
qualifications of a member of the House of Representatives is
the House itself.
Judge Saund had not yet become
a familiar name to the voters in Riverside County. But they read
his name on the front pages of every newspaper in the district,
not one time but three times, first when the appeal was filed,
second time when it was turned down by the lower court and third
time when the Supreme Court rejected it. No money could have bought
him as much publicity and name recognition as these news reports.
But his Democratic opponent did not give up. He, in his newspaper
and radio advertisements, attacked Saund of his being an Indian
and not an American and quoted passages from his book, My Mother
India, out of context. Even his name Dalip Singh was boldly printed
and Saund in small letters to draw attention of the voters that
Judge Saund was really not an American. All the tactics used against
Judge Saund apparently did not hurt him; he won the primary with
a tremendous majority.
In the general election, Saund
faced Jacqueline Odlum, winner of many prizes in the field of
aviation, leader of women fliers during World War II and wife
of a multimillion financier. She was contesting from a district
that has always elected a Republican in its entire history. She
had rich supporters and was personal friend of the President of
the United States. At her barbecue rallies, people not only would
come to see the invited celebrities, such as Bob Hope but her
also, a celebrity in her own right. She even had then Vice President
Nixon come to Riverside to speak for her.
Judge Saund faced formidable handicaps
but was not intimidated. His friends and neighbors with the help
of Democratic groups in Riverside County, began to sponsor a series
of free barbecues which gave him an opportunity to meet people
and communicate his message. His whole family, his wife, three
children, his son-in-law and daughter-in-law and score of volunteers
kept busy ringing doorbells and passing out literature. He did
not have funds to buy space on commercial billboards, so his volunteers
made homemade billboards on 4x8 foot plywood sheets. He put up
these billboards throughout the district and they apparently turned
out to be very effective. His wife and daughter organized and
carried out an intensive campaign of registration of voters and
“passed out 11,000 Saund circulars” before the election. They
had visited thousands and thousands of homes with the help of
dedicated volunteers and made a definite impact on many voters.
Much after the election, people would come up to Saund and say,
“I met your daughter”,……..or “your son-in-law called at my house…..
and that is when I decided that I was going to vote for you.”
Judge Saund had farmed for twenty-five
years in Imperial County and was thoroughly acquainted with the
problems of the farming communities in both counties. He believed
that farmers needed government protection in order to get a fair
share of the economic reward. So the farmers in the 29th district
were confident of his representation of them in the U.S. Congress.
But, it was from the cities, that he was trying hard to get a
fair share of votes. Thus, in the general election in November
1958, “the first native of Asia” was elected to the United States
of Congress with a 3% vote margin.
There were very few Indian Americans
registered to vote in the 29th congressional district. In fact
there were barely 2500 people of Indian origin in the entire United
States. He did not have many ethnic voters either; the large majority
being Caucasian Americans. He did not adopt a new religion in
his new country nor did he Americanize his name to sound less
ethnic. His opponents repeatedly tried to exploit his being an
Indian American. But he had completely assimilated with mainstream
America while maintaining his heritage. He actively participated
in Democratic Party activities and rose to be a delegate in three
conventions starting in 1952. He represented grass-roots philosophies
and identified with middle-class values, the values of the people
he lived with. Today, Indian Americans, seeking political office
invoke Saund’s name, much the same way, as Saund himself invoked
Gandhi and President Lincoln’s name. Like them, he is a source
of inspiration and a worthy role model to look up to.
Inder Singh is Vice Chair, National
Asian Pacific Center on Aging, a non-profit, serving Asian seniors.
He was NFIA president 1988-92 and chairman 1992-96. He was founder
President of FIA, Southern California.